The bliss that is Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald is just so darn normal – not that outrageous beauty and talent are normal. But the point is, she could be a raging diva if she so chose. And maybe she is offstage (though I doubt it), but onstage, she’s funny, self-deprecating and comfortable, just as you’d expect of a girl from Fresno.

McDonald was back in the Bay Area Sunday afternoon for a concert at Zellerbach Hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus as part of the Cal Performances season. McDonald has been something of a regular visitor to Berkeley, and she never disappoints.

Sunday’s was a concert that almost didn’t happen. Flying into SFO from Eugene, Ore., McDonald encountered a baggage snafu. In the Bay Area for only a few hours – song, slam, thank you, ma’am – before she had to return to L.A. to resume filming of the ABC series “Private Practice,” McDonald found that her luggage had been checked all the way through to L.A. And the really bad news was that all the sheet music for her Berkeley concert was in those bags.

Oh, well. She and pianist Dan Lipton joked that this concert could be called “Songs that We Could Find the Sheet Music For,” or something like that.

If anyone in the packed audience was worried that four-time Tony Award-winner McDonald would offer a less-than-stellar show, they were soon calmed by several things: a) McDonald’s svelte and sexy figure poured into a full-length, low-cut, summery red gown and b) from the first number, the sexy, bass-heavy “When Lola Sings,” a specialty number written for her by Michael John LaChiusa, one of the new-guard Broadway composers she champions.

Just as she was launching into her second number, McDonald halted the proceedings – could it be a diva moment? She said, “Sorry, it’s just one of those days,” and she leaned down and picked up a roll of duct tape a stagehand had left on the stage, which was thrown into the wings.

Messy details taken care of, McDonald and her four-piece band got down to business with a lovely medley of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring” from State Fair and Lerner and Lane’s “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. With her glorious soprano mixing otherworldly purity with your average, everyday shimmering beauty, McDonald delivers what might be considered show tune heaven.

Curiously, McDonald did not pay much attention to songs from her most recent album, “Build a Bridge” (on Nonesuch Records). She sang only one song from that contemporary collection, Adam Guettel’s “Dividing Day” from his Tony Award-winning The Light in the Piazza, which was a powerhouse dramatic aria in McDonald’s hands. This isn’t a complaint, it’s just that the album is so good that McDonald might have thrown a few more selections into her recital (then again, maybe that sheet music was in L.A.).

Absent a wealth of new material, the audience had to “suffer” through some McDonald standards such as Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and Moon,” an anti-capitalist story song that still packs a wallop, Jay Leonhart’s jazzy-funny “Beat My Dog,” the lustrous ballad “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello and Frank Loesser’s “Can’t Stop Talking About Him” from the Fred Astaire movie Let’s Dance.

Some of the 90-minute concert’s most intriguing numbers came from McDonald’s Carnegie Hall concert in which she sang songs that for one reason or another scared her. Among those songs were “Will He Like Me?” from She Loves Me,
Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life” from the movie version of A Little Night Music and “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, performed beautifully with acoustic guitar (played by Brian Pardo).

Among the more dramatic moments were LaChiusa’s take on anger as part of a series of songs McDonald commissioned from her friends dealing with the seven deadly sins and the truly heartbreaking “I Won’t Mind,” a ballad of spinsterhood by Jeff Blumenkrantz, Annie Kessler and Libby Saines. McDonald’s version of “Bill” from Show Boat is usually a highlight, but McDonald diffuses the beauty of the song by putting it in a comic context. She chose to sing the song at an event honoring Bill Cosby, but the Bill in the song is just an ordinary guy and it turned out to be completely the wrong song to sing. So every lyric in the song that trumpets Bill’s lack of anything extraordinary gets an audience laugh because of the Cosby connection, and the song becomes something other than the lyrical beauty it is.

After a rousing audience sing-along to “I Could Have Danced All Night,” McDonald blended two Sondheim songs, “What Can You Lose?” from the movie Dick Tracy and “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along, then capped the show with an encore of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music, performed without a microphone opposite Pardo’s acoustic guitar.

The only drawback to McDonald’s show was that it ended too soon. Where’s that cranked-up Judy Garland spirit of singing them all and staying all night? Oh, yeah. McDonald is the normal one with a real job and a 6-year-old daughter. We’ll just have to be grateful for what we get.

Here’s McDonald in concert (from her PBS “Build a Bridge” show) singing “Stars and Moon” with composer Jason Robert Brown at the piano:

Stage presents: A theater gift guide

So many fine gift ideas, so little space. Let’s get started with some great theater books.

In the realm of books about theater, this year’s standout comes from San Mateo native Thomas Schumacher, who also happens to be the president of Disney Theatrical, the producer of such hits as The Lion King and Mary Poppins. Schumacher’s How Does the Show Go On? An Introduction to the Theater (Disney Editions, $19.95) is geared toward the young theatergoer (ages 9 to 12), but it’s a hugely entertaining look at the entire theatrical picture, from the beginning of a show to the most intricate details of daily production.

The Bay Area can’t get enough of the musical Jersey Boys. For the most avid fans, there is, of course, a coffee-table book. Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons (Broadway, $40) contains the show’s libretto, lots of photos and a thorough guide to the real Four Seasons and their Broadway counterparts.

You think you know everything about The Sound of Music? Think again. Author Laurence Maslon has assembled the ultimate look behind the scenes of the world’s most beloved movie musical. The Sound of Music Companion (Fireside, $40) covers every aspect of the show, right up to the British reality TV show that allowed viewers to vote on the actress who wound up playing Maria on London’s West End.

The hottest show on Broadway is the multi-Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening. Fans already have memorized the great cast album, so give them Spring Awakening (Theatre Communications Group, $13.95), the libretto (by Steven Sater) and a new adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s original play by novelist Jonathan Franzen (Faber and Faber, $11.70). Franzen hates the musical, by the way, so it’s interesting to see how the play and the musical diverge.

This was the year of the movie musical — or maybe I should say the good movie musical. If your gift recipient loves musicals, make sure he or she has Hairspray (New Line Home Entertainment, $34.98 for two-disc version, $28.98 for single-disc), the joyous movie version of the Broadway hit; Once (20th Century Fox, $29.99), a fascinating and musically rich love story about an Irish street musician and an interesting woman he meets by chance; Colma: The Musical (Lionsgate, $27.98), a locally grown musical with catchy tunes and a better-than-average cast of characters. The best of the big-ticket DVD items this year is The Noel Coward Collection ($79.98 BBC/Warner), a veritable treasure trove of Cowardly delights. The set contains seven discs and runs some 19 hours (plus another 12 hours of bonus material that includes interviews, radio plays and more). The plays included are Private Lives (with the delectable Penelope Keith), Hay Fever, Design for Living, Present Laughter, A Song at Twilight, Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill and Tonight at 8:30.

This isn’t a CD, but while we’re on the subject of Coward, this year saw the release of a fantastic volume of Coward’s letters: The Letters of Noel Coward (Knopf, $37.50), edited by Barry Day. The beauty is that the book contains letters both from and to Coward, whose beastly wit entertains in every epistle.

The fine folks at PS Classics, the show-minded label that, in addition to turning out excellent original-cast albums, allows musical theater performers the chance to show their vocal stuff, have released some terrific new discs just in time for the holidays.

The best of the bunch is Lauren Kennedy’s Here and Now, a marvelous collection of show music and pop. Album highlight is Andrew Lippa’s “Spread a Little Joy,” followed closely by Jason Robert Brown’s “In This Room” and Adam Guettel‘s “Through the Mountain” (from Floyd Collins). Kennedy’s voice is so vibrant — at times so Streisandian — it’s irresistible.

PS Classics also is offering two more Broadway divas: Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark (Light in the Piazza) with Fifteen Seconds to Love, a solid collection mixing standards (“Right as the Rain,” “I Got Lost in His Arms”) and newer material (Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Red Dress,” Jane Kelly Williams’ “Fifteen Seconds of Grace”); and Andrea Burns (soon to be on Broadway again in In the Heights) with A Deeper Shade of Red, a set that mixes Joni Mitchell (“Chelsea Morning”) with Stephen Sondheim (“What More Do I Need?”) and Melissa Manchester (“Through the Eyes of Grace”) with Kate Bush and Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Man with the Child in His Eyes/Something Wonderful”).

PS Classics’ Songwriter Series with the Library of Congress’ latest offering is a doozy: Jonathan Larson: Jonathan Sings Larson. The composer of Rent, who died tragically the night before his show opened, is heard singing demos and performing live, and the disc paints an incredible portrait of an artist full of talent, humor and ambition. The accompanying DVD features four live performances from Larson’s gig at New York’s Village Gate.

From `Piazza’ to cabaret

Dean Martin can be heard crooning in the background as Christine Andreas scurries around her kitchen, the phone tucked between shoulder and ear, as she conducts an interview and prepares for a party she’s throwing her son in a few hours.

“My son turns 20 in a few days, and when you’re special, you get lots of birthday parties,” Andreas says, referring to her son, Mac, who has Down syndrome. “He moved into a group home last year, and all the families are having an `around the world’ tour, with each family doing a country. We’re doing Italy, so I’m downloading Dean Martin, warming up lasagna and making bruschetta.”

Mac moved into the group home just before his mother embarked on a national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical The Light in the Piazza, which opened in San Francisco in July 2006.

“That show is such a very layered piece,” Andreas says. “It took a while for it to get into my bones. I found it very gratifying. It’s so spare. I want to say it’s like haiku theater, but it isn’t really. You do use few words to convey a lot. It did require me to be a better actor because you take out more, do less and convey more.”

Andreas says she would love to do the role again.

“I would surrender more,” she says about the role of a mother whose brain-damaged daughter is falling in love for the first time. “It’s like good music — the more you sing it, the less you do, the more you let it sing you, work on you. When you get out of the way, interesting stuff happens.”

Piazza, Andreas says, is more lifelike than other shows she has done, from the Broadway revival of My Fair Lady in 1976 to The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1997.

“Even though Piazza is a fable, it’s so distilled down and does so much with so little that the less you do, the more you let the grace run through you and the more honest it is,” she says. “It’s a show that is so full of love. If you do it simply, even if people don’t love every aspect of it, pieces of love come through.”

The 55-week tour ended in Chicago in July, and since returning to her home in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Andreas has been relaxing and working in cabaret.

She brings her cabaret show, Love Is Good, to San Francisco’s Empire Plush Room Tuesday for a two-week run, and her accompanist, pianist Martin Silvestri, also happens to be her new husband.

“We got married during the Piazza tour,” Andreas says. “We had some time off in Arizona, so Marty and I went and got married in Sedona. I had been courting him for 16 years.”

The newlyweds’ set list will likely include everything from “They Say It’s Wonderful” to a country-western Clint Black tune, with some Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Billy Joel thrown in as well.

“Cabaret, like everything else, can be so full of ego,” Andreas says. “At the end of the night, along with all the high notes, big notes, loud notes and pretty notes, you want to feel you’ve experienced something personal. You want to walk away with the performer’s music and something of that person. When I go see Barbara Cook, I leave thinking, `I have a little Barbara Cook in me now.’ That’s why I like the cabaret form. It scared me initially because it’s so intensely personal. Now I like it.”

Christine Andreas’ Love Is Good opensOct.2 and continues through Oct. 14 at the Empire Plush Room in the York Hotel, 940 Sutter St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $35-$40 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit

Visit Christine Andreas’ official Web site at